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December 27, 2013

Trees have it tough during harsh winters

The Daily Star

---- — My wife and I went to Maine the week before Christmas to visit some relatives. While we were there, you folks experienced a sudden change in the weather. Temperatures rose into the 60s and the snow quietly vanished without fanfare.

Maine, however, was very different. It remained in the upper 20s and rained. A half-inch of ice covered everything.

I looked out and was reminded of Robert Frost’s poem “Birches.”

“When I see birches bend to left and right

Across the lines of straighter darker trees

I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.

But swing doesn’t bend them down to stay

As ice-storms do.”

Green pine tree boughs got heavier as the ice thickened and soon crashed to the ground, as did the maples, ash, oak and cherry. Wires were pulled from poles, leaving thousands of people in the dark and cold for Christmas.

As I watched out the windows, I wondered what the moose and deer were doing in this miserable weather. I’m sure they were in the thickest cover they could find, bedded in the snow deep in the hemlocks, waiting for the cold winter rain to stop.

Weather doesn’t hurt or bother these animals. They have thick layers of fat and hollow-haired, weather-proof coats that insulate their bodies from the wind and cold.

I remember being in the Arctic hunting caribou years ago. The vast herds of these animals migrated farther north for the winter, where the brutal, sub-zero winds would blow the snow off the tundra so they could feed on the mosses and lichens. Winter arrived there in September and lasted well into May, but they survived. It wasn’t winter that took the weak; it was the wolves that followed them every day.

My old horse had a barn where he could get out of the weather, but he didn’t like it. He preferred to stand up on the hill and watch down the valley. The snow and cold north wind would howl and blow. He’d just stand there with snow covering his back and his butt to the wind while surveying his territory. He was happy.

The only time weather bothers animals is when they can’t get food and water. Zero temperatures and a foot of snow mean nothing to them. In fact, the snow acts as insulation as well. After the rain had stopped, these Maine native creatures just stood up, shook off the ice from their coats and went back to browsing on the buds and grasses like normal.

The trees didn’t fare as well. The white birches that bent across the roads and into the yards will never straighten, even after they shed their crystal shells.

“And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed

So low for long, they never right themselves.”

(Frost. 1916)

Rick Brockway writes a weekly outdoors column for The Daily Star. Email him at